Yet Untitled Lite 004 - Singapore v. Bali v. Kubla Khan v. Shah Rukh Khan
Demon Lovers and Two Small Islands.
Greetings Dear Yet Untitlers
Here’s the last of the Lites for this round; being typed for you from the sky somewhere over the Bay of Bengal as my plane approaches Mumbai - my chosen home - whereafter (is that a word?) I will get back to my routine of longer reflections.
One paragraph as a report - what’s been gained from writing the shorter form? I found it to be ‘doable’, more immediate and possible to send out with no more than a day in hand. Also, each of these short ones turned out to be longer than expected. The journal-like immediacy is interesting - the process of creating them stoked my curiosity more, and the call to action was stronger because writing was the only way to process these thoughts.
I seem to have strayed from the “lead with a photo” axiom: leading with thoughts to which I append photos more than the other way around. I would like to go back to the discipline of choosing a photo and launching from there, but I’ve not produced that sort of photograph on this trip. I wish I’d shot more portraits, but let’s say that my eye wasn’t going there - it was busy documenting my family’s experiences on holiday, while my thoughts were running and processing other stuff in parallel. So - leading with thoughts it is, for now.
What’s this post about then? One single thought:
Balinese people seem far happier than Singaporeans
Why do I consider the happiness index of Singaporeans vs Balinese people important to write about? Well, simply because it seems like the Singaporeans ‘have everything’; so I was constantly asking myself why they came across as grumpy all the time? I mean, I was told that each one of them owned a home, and that the state really took care of their needs. I mean, look at the place - everything works. The cars are shiny and well kept. The foliage sings because it’s been given room to grow and has been attended to. But what I received in my everyday interface with Singaporeans (other than my dear friends there who I knew) was mostly indifference or a barely tolerant grumpiness at my presence.
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On the other hand, the smiles that greeted me in Bali were something else. At first it was easy to assign this to the fact that I and my family were “needed” as tourists in Bali (which really suffered during the pandemic) and perhaps in Singapore we weren’t really needed. Even if we tourists stopped coming, Singapore seemed to have enough going for itself in order to prosper without faltering.
But there was an effervescence about the Balinese that was infectious - a genuine concern and joy that I experienced among them that made me consciously look for its source. Their island too is beautiful like Singapore, but I’d say this - their island feels like their partner, while the island of Singapore feels like it’s in its people’s service.
Singapore is exactly what it’s designed to be - a place where things work. Bali feels like the the greater thing bigger than all its people. In the first relationship there is control. In the second there is an interdependence and respect. I’m not saying that Singaporeans don’t love their country. Clearly, they do. But it felt like a different kind of love.
The Balinese have nothing but it feels like they have everything. Even thought they have hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Rupiah in their pockets, it can’t really buy them much (one million Rupiah = about 67$US). The poverty there is real - you can see it in their desperation to sell you stuff. You can see it in the number of kids one step away from begging. You can feel it in the negligible heft of their aluminium alloy coins that feel like play money.
One experience in Bali that stood out…
This really touched me:
I had requested our driver to stop in the middle of a sojourn for us to buy some coconuts to sip on. The moment we got off, children and adults stepped out of nowhere to sell us stuff - baubles, curios, clothes.
When they approached, I saw our driver - Mr. Kardana - reach out and boop the nose of this one little girl who was trying to sell me some beads. It was a gesture of affection.
In seeing this gesture, I got a sense that despite not having much; here were people who were working hard together. They rebuilt their lives together. There was a quiet empathy between them. There was a common goal to do better.
This experience really held a mirror to my face. My taxi driver in India would have likely shooed the little girl away, taking the car further off, considering it his duty to not let his customer be bothered by people who he believed to be beneath both himself and his customer. I would have likely not reacted, because this is something that happens often, and feels “normal”.
Perhaps Singapore had Mr. Kardana’s spirit once. Maybe it lost its way when things became way better, when the challenges vanished. Perhaps my country also had this spirit once.
I wonder where we lost our way?
The amount of times I heard Shah Rukh Khan’s name on this trip:
In both Singapore and Bali. One day when I meet Shah Rukh Khan, I’m going to tell him this. I think it’s a pretty darn amazing achievement.
Ever since I saw the Cloud Forest in Singapore, Samuael Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’ has been running through my head. You can read the full text of the poem here, or you can hear Benedict Cumberbatch recite it here.
‘Kubla Khan’ used to be my favourite poem when I was 16. Twenty five years later, I still remember 75% of it by heart. It speaks of a ‘pleasure dome’ constructed in the air by the fantastical Kubla Khan, where there are ‘forests as ancient as the hills’ enfolding ‘sunny spots of greenery’ - a picture of unbelievable beauty in an unbelievable place. Just below the surface, however, is a…
...deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! A savage place! as holy and enchanted As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
Revisiting ‘Kubla Khan’ again, my mind became full of parallels that it started attributing to the experience of Singapore’s Cloud Forest and Flower Dome? Could there be, in some unmarked, chasm-like basement beneath both these pleasure domes, an army of Singaporean women wailing beneath a fake moon for Shah Rukh Khan?
God knows - but crazy places could well have a crazy basis.
Thank god my imagination stopped short of seeing Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew as Coleridge’s opium fuelled self projection as the man with “flashing eyes and floating hair”.
If you want a taste of how I experienced the Romantic Poets at school and college see this.
And if you really want your brain broken, see this line by line explanation of Kubla Khan in Hindi, especially the translation of the ‘demon lover’. Knowledge of Hindi required.
Spoiler, but it’s so good that I gotta: In a great coup of translation, Demon Lover = “Bewafa Ashiq” (around 5:05).
“Bewafa Ashiq” = loose trans. “Unscrupulous Romeo” = stock Bollywood character = Shah Rukh Khan 😂.
See you next week!
PPS: To my Singaporean friends who’d likely want to lob bombs at me for this post…
I love you and I love your land. I really enjoyed myself there and my kids had a blast. We felt secure and everything was easy - we could relax. That says a lot in this mad mad world we love in today. It also gave me so much to think about and for this I am grateful.